UVic Biochemistry Researchers Partner with Biotech Company on Cancer Treatment

Two University of Victoria biochemists are entering into a collaboration that could take immunotherapy—the latest and most promising form of cancer treatment—to the next level.

UVic’s Martin Boulanger and Brad Nelson, a researcher with UVic and the BC Cancer Agency, are partnering with Vancouver-based biotech company Zymeworks Inc. on a cell engineering strategy that will make immunotherapy more potent and precise. The impact of this approach could go beyond cancer to the treatment of other diseases.

The collaboration is funded by $430,000 from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), with an additional $440,000 in support and resources from Zymeworks.

Immunotherapy involves taking immune cells from a patient’s tumour, growing the cells in the lab and infusing them back into the patient’s bloodstream to provide a super-charged ability to fight the cancer. A growth factor (cytokine) is then given to the patient to stimulate the immune cells. However, because the cytokine signals a number of other cells in the body, it can cause side effects and reduced precision.

The goal of this research is to engineer cytokine and cytokine receptors that selectively pair with each other. Boulanger will work closely with Zymeworks to design cytokine and cytokine receptor pairs, while Nelson will test the effective pairs in model organisms. The receptors will then be embedded into immune cells so that the cells are selectively signaled by the cytokine.

Cytokines are involved with a myriad of human processes, so this research could have important implications far beyond cancer treatment. “The cytokine and cytokine receptor pair technology we’re designing is a ‘plug and play’ modular system,” says Boulanger. “It is a powerful approach to conferring exclusivity in cellular signaling processes associated with immune response dysfunction and disease, which may lead to new treatments."